Sunday, November 9, 2014

Berlin Wall Falls: 25th Anniversary

The Berlin wall comes down. November 9th 1989
From Dan Armstrong in Germany

Today is the actual 25th anniversary of the opening of the DDR border. I spent yesterday evening watching a dramatisation called Bornholmer Stra├če written by Harald Jaeger, the border guard who actually opened the barrier.

His book describes the agonising of the guard unit who had watched Schabowsky announce the freedom to travel on TV but who had themselves not received an actual order to open the border. Without orders, nothing ever moved in the DDR. Meanwhile crowds had begun to gather on the eastern side and were calling for the border to be opened. The guard unit paralysed by the lack of clarity split, with two hardliners prepared to shoot, most of the others vacillating and a group flatly refusing to consider violence. The guard dreamed up a way of letting a few people through one by one and stamping their IDs while growing crowds dutifully queued. The party leadership virtually went into hiding. Eventually Jaeger took the bull by the horns and simply unlocked the red and white barrier allowing the masses to stream through. This scenario seemed entirely plausible.

On this, I go along with Faust: Zwei Seelen in meiner Brust. I simultaneously hold two contradictory views. The joy of the masses was delightful and moving. The subsequent destruction of their welfare state and the ruination of the economy, their agriculture and their social network and their common history was pitiful. The right to work and price controls were abolished. western vultures swooped on the east German towns and farms, smashing them and grabbing the markets. Honest farmers from huge and efficient coops were forced to offer their wares by the roadside because the new western supermarkets drew their supplies from the west. Economic refugees turned up here prepared to do menial work for low pay, deserting their homes and often their families and ageing parents creating ghost towns like in Mezzogiorno. The counter revolution turned out to be bloodless, but nevertheless economically and socially violent.

Today around half the population would like a return to the DDR social system, to full employment and security. Of course they agree that freedom to travel and criticise should also be present. So why wasn't that possible?

I revisited the DDR just between the fall of the wall and the annexation of the state by the west. My hosts treated me to ample breakfasts and after the meal, they threw away large quantities of bread and rolls. We asked about this. They explained that bread was so cheap it wasn't worth keeping. Farmers in fact bought up supplies and fed them to their livestock which made perefect economic sense. That is the nub of the question. There were strict price controls in the DDR - rents, public transport, food, all the essentials. This was paid for by levies on industry and  administered by a central planning authority. These were the same people who priced cars and video recorders etc out of the range of most people. There was no democratic, just bureaucratic, control. Occasionally rumblings from the population reached their ears and they adjusted this or that and under Honnecker in the mid 70s there was a turn to give people TV sets, motorbikes, better furniture  and the like - a move which practially bankrupted the economy. The whole system was based on plannable production, massive subsidies. a closed market and therefore closed borders.

B follows logically from A. If you try to set up a socialist system - whether stalinist or democratic - in one country, or in one-third of a country, having such sealed borders and a stable population and economy are essential.

Were the people imprisoned behind barbed wire as the western media claim? Well, most people would probably like to travel but would not contemplate leaving their homes or their country. They weren't allowed to visit NATO countries for fear of contamination by the wily west. And when the border opened, the chant was Open the barrier, we're all coming back.

By defending the DDR against the west, did we condone slaughtering the population putting us in the camp of people who ignored the Holocaust? This is what the rightwing press  maintain. In the forty years of the closed border, 138 people were killed. Very nasty. And sad. Because tens of thousands of DDR citizens were given official exit permits , especially if they were pacifists, insistent troublemakers, pensioners or had close connections with western families. We don't know but I think a large number of those trying to cross over were what we would call economic refugees, hungry for western consumer goods after watching too many BRD TV ads for Porsche cars. And they often risked the lives of their young children to do so.

I don't approve of shooting people for wanting to leave their country. In those days, everyone was terrified of everyone else. The Russians were also suspicious of their "own" Germans because they were still Germans. The two camps were bristling with murderous nuclear weapons and nothing physical separated them - except the DDR border. And the DDR leaders utterly lacked self-confidence which is why they prevented proper discussions and democratic control because they were fairly sure they would lose control completely. And surrounded themselves with DDR tat and gave each other medals and waved flags. They were hemorrhaging people up to 1961 because the western boom was attractive. They were also sure that the west would invade given half a chance.

Did I take any notice of shootings on the wall? Not really. I normally discounted such events as either lies or exaggerations and I was loyal to the workers' state. In a roundabout way, I played my part in upholding that system - for a while at least. One part of me says the shootings were unjustified and immoral. The other part says we should neither weep nor laugh but try to understand.

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